A Memorable Opening Line
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Recently my hometown newspaper, The Morning Call of Allentown, asked me about my reading habits for a new feature the paper is kicking off. The reporter wanted to know what book I had just finished ("The Hour I First Believed" by Wally Lamb), what I was currently reading ("Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" by Barbara Kingsolver), my all-time favorite book ("Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger), the book that first got me hooked on reading ("Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson in fourth grade), and when I do most of my reading (on airplanes and in bed before turning off the light for the night). But one question stumped me: "What is the most memorable opening line from a book?" I thought and I thought and couldn't quite come up with anything. I went to my bookshelves and pulled down old favorites... Hemingway, John Irving, Frank McCourt, Steinbeck, even Chaucer. Nothing was grabbing me. I thought about some of the classic opening lines of literature, such as "Call me Ishmael" in Melville's Moby Dick. But I couldn't really list that with a straight face because, truth be told, that opening line was just about as far into the notoriously dense novel as I got when it was assigned to me in high school.
Flash forward to a recent weekend in San Francisco. I was in town to give a talk at a fundraiser event to benefit The Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Koret School of Veterinary Medicine. I arrived the night before, which gave me most of Saturday to wander around San Francisco, my favorite city in all North America (closely followed by Montreal). The weather was cool and rainy (big surprise), but I wasn't going to let that hold me hostage in my hotel room. I wandered around Union Square, up Geary Street, through the Financial District, into China Town, and beyond that to the corner of Columbus and Broadway where I rediscovered one of the country's great -- and one of my favorite -- bookstores, City Lights. A great place to while away a rain-soaked afternoon. I shook off my raincoat, folded my umbrella and headed inside. On the second floor I found an entire wall dedicated to the Beat Generation writers. That only made sense. City Lights, founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the spiritual home of the Beat movement.
The first cover my eyes fell upon was Howl, the controversial 1956 book-length poem by Allen Ginsburg. I had read an excerpt for a poetry survey class in college and remembered it being provocative. I pulled it off the shelf, grabbed a rocking chair, and started to read. I recognized the opening lines right away and remembered how they had swept over me, the crazy, inexplicable power of those raw words, when I first read them thirty years ago. I guess that constitutes memorable.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix;
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
So there you have it. An opening line worth remembering, even if it required a cross-country flight and a trudge through the rain-slick streets of San Francisco for me to find it again.
posted by John Grogan at 9:08 PM